In his final interview, Arafat cultivated the image of a survivor. An historic, tense encounter revisited.

4 May 2023 By Paul Martin
By Maria Cedrell and Paul Martin in Ramallah, 2004.

When Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat gave his final interview to us, we had to supply a list of proposed questions. The first question was supposed to be: “Mr. Arafat, where were you born and where did you grow up?”

“No,” his aide told us. “Not allowed.”

In the life of a man so revered and so reviled, even birthplaces are political.

There is a deliberate formulation of items displayed to enhance the theme of victimisation.

The parking lot at Mr. Arafat’s battered compound in Ramallah has a political slant. It has been arranged to portray an image of brave survival against overwhelming odds. The pockmarks and the rubble from various Israeli attacks in the city had been carefully preserved, down to the last wrecked car.

Personal victimhood was also a theme that jelled with Mr Arafat’s own psyche. Clashes with Israeli troops began here in 2002, and, he proudly showed us, his own small bedroom was struck, though he was not in it at the time. A bridge linking Mr. Arafat’s main offices and bedroom with much more spacious accommodation on the other side of a narrow lane was later part of extensive rebuilding. But Mr. Arafat steadfastly refused to use any of the new rooms – preferring to sleep in his damaged bedroom.

During our exclusive interview in July 2004, it became evident that it was being granted with strings attached. For example, Nabil Abu Rdeineh, the media handler for the Palestinian leader and for his successor Mahmoud Abbas knew exactly why he needed to rule out the proposed question on Mr. Arafat’s birthplace.

Mr. Arafat for decades contended that he had been born in Jerusalem, but his birth certificate shows that he was born in Cairo – not de rigueur as credentials for a Palestinian revolutionary leader. “Ask nothing that happened before Oslo,” said Mr. Abu Rdeineh, referring to the peace deal accepted by Mr. Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn in 1993.

Dinner with Mr. Arafat was not on the schedule, but he insisted that we join him at his table.

Over a meal with a small assortment of Cabinet ministers, advisers, a couple of middle-aged women and a couple of security men, Mr. Arafat was charm itself. He would leap from his chair every now and then, remove a lump of chicken or some other delicacy from his own plate and dump a portion on one of our plates.

No photographs were allowed in the dining room – apparently for security reasons. It also doubled as a conference chamber for the Palestinian Cabinet, which would meet with him weekly around the huge, shiny wooden table. His aides had ensured that even as he ate, Mr. Arafat would remain surrounded by carefully arranged little plaques and carved statuettes – gifts and tributes that he had been given by his visitors.

These items seemed to bring him a form of comfort – as if to reassure him that he was still paid homage to and revered worldwide.

After dinner, the interview finally began – in an adjacent room in front of a carefully placed backdrop of a photograph showing the golden Dome of the Rock, an early Islamic building in Jerusalem. It reflected Mr. Arafat’s favourite militaristic slogan: “To Jerusalem we march, martyrs by the millions.” (“Al-Quts Raheem, Shu’hada bul Mul’yeen.”)

His bottom lip quivered, but his hands remained mostly steady. It was to be a bizarre and bruising encounter, reflecting the leader’s cunning, but also his sudden and often irrational changes of mood and tone, swinging within seconds from smiling to snarling.

Paul Martin: “The intifada, which has killed thousands on both sides, has gone on for four years. What chances are there this will now end?”

Mr. Arafat: “[The Israelis] are declaring, this government, that Oslo had died – not me. [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon himself had mentioned this, insisting to say what had been signed between me and my partner Rabin – the Oslo agreement in the White House under the supervision of President Clinton and with the participation of the whole world – they are saying now there is no Oslo agreement.” road map which had been offered to us by the Quartet committee [comprising the United States, Russia, European Union and the United Nations] we had accepted it, openly, clearly, not only we Arab Palestinians, but it had been accepted by the Arab summit conference and also in the [U.N.] Security Council. The peace groups in Israel also were accepting it, but this government, who killed, who are representing the fanatic groups who killed my partner Rabin with who I had signed the peace of the brave, are putting me in this closed prison.”

* * *
Bitterness at the perceived lack of international support for the Palestinian cause became a recurring theme of the interview – as did his accusation that the Sharon government was linked to the “fanatic groups” that assassinated Mr. Rabin in 1995. Mr. Arafat was determined to portray the Palestinians as innocent victims of U.S.-backed Israeli aggression.

Mr. Arafat: “The Americans went to Baghdad under the big umbrella of uranium. [Yet,] until now, after more than 11 and a half years, they did not find the uranium in Baghdad. Why? We had discovered from the beginning that these fanatic groups who are in power in Israel are using this depleted uranium.”We asked the Quartet committee, observers and their technical missions – and here, you can have it. [See] what is written here, the depleted [uranium], for you, [here’s] the American report.”

Maria Cedrell: “Are you accusing the Israelis of using depleted uranium against Palestinians?”

Mr. Arafat: “How this can be done? Why? This is forbidden internationally, against our people. Do you know the cancer has been raised amongst our people, become similar to Nagasaki and Hiroshima? The infertility of our families has been increased. Who knows what more will happen against our people from this depleted uranium? We don’t know. This is what we have discovered and [yet why] this silence, not one voice?”

* * *
After the interview, we checked his assertion with doctors at Ramallah General Hospital. There, beneath ubiquitous official portraits and posters of Mr. Arafat and local “martyrs,” a doctor provided phone numbers of the two top cancer specialists in the West Bank. One of them, who had trained in Ireland, said no increase in cancer rates had been detected in the past few years – an observation confirmed during a telephone conversation by a specialist in Bethlehem’s top hospital. The Palestinian Authority’s statistics and health departments each said they had no data on the issue.

Miss Cedrell: “What is your plan now?

Mr. Arafat: “What is the plan? We are insisting, to follow up, the implementation of what we had agreed upon: the peace of the brave. Since Oslo, it was [former Prime Minister and current Finance Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and Sharon. … Why did they not implement it?”Miss Cedrell: “Why not?”Mr. Arafat: “You have to ask [Mr. Sharon]. We had accepted all the steps.”

* * *
Mr. Arafat portrayed himself as a man willing to reach a deal with Israel, claiming he had always been willing to implement the Oslo accords. Usually at the prompting, in Arabic, of Mr. Abu Rdeineh, the leader would insert the phase “peace of the brave” into his conversation, even when it was of marginal relevance.

But when asked an apparently innocuous question about efforts to sideline him, he became angry.

Miss Cedrell: “Why do you think the Americans and the Egyptians tried to eliminate you from negotiations and cut your role?”

Mr. Arafat: [Pointing his finger for emphasis] “No one can replace me; I have been elected by the Palestinian people. Are you against democracy?”

Miss Cedrell: “I’m only asking your opinion.”

Mr. Arafat: [Now visibly angry] “Why you are asking me? You are not accepting I am the only president, who has been elected under international supervision. And you are now asking me this question – you are representing these fanatic groups in Israel or who are supporting them from outside?”

Miss Cedrell: “Are you disappointed in the Americans?”

Mr. Arafat: “Not to forget that the Americans had offered to us with the Quartet committee the road map. And now we are waiting for the implementation of the road map.”Miss Cedrell: “Do you believe they want to remove you from Ramallah to some other place?”

Mr. Arafat: “I have the right to ask my freedom, but more importantly, not only my freedom, but the freedom of my people, from the crimes of this military escalation against my people, against peace, not only here, the peace of Palestine, the peace for the whole area. Not to forget this, this is the holy land, the terra sancta.”

Mr. Martin: “You keep talking about peace and saying that if there is a full Palestinian state, there will be peace in the area. But thousands of people have died in this uprising that you launched. So do you really want peace, and if so, how are you going to show and prove this to the Israelis?”

Mr. Arafat: “Please ask Sharon about it, because they don’t want peace. They are insisting to carry on.” 

NOTE: Yasser Arafat died months later, in November 2004 and was buried in front of the Muqatta where we had been the last television team to interview him. Paul Martin attended his funeral there.